Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Episode 27: More cats, bigger fight...and soap

Courtney had thrown on the chainmail loose about her, threw on her rugby cleats and headgear, put her mouthguard in, and grabbed her katana; it looked like a replica model, but it had cost her over a thousand bucks-hand forged with an edge. She paused for a moment as she removed it from the hardwood plaque on the wall. It was crazy really, for Blackout to tell her to bring this stuff to an emergency? But she'd heard that shriek...was it all some sort of gag? There was no way to know, and she had always promised herself that she would never be that person who ignored a cry for help, who let a woman be raped outside her door when she could have done something, like she heard stories about so many times working downtown at the women's shelter. She'd once gone next door in Lister Hall when the girl next door had brought home the wrong guy. It had been a bad night for the wrong guy. He'd been drunk and got violent, and that's when Courtney had knocked at the door. He'd told her to fuck off, and she'd said if he didn't open up she'd call the cops. After he opened the door he probably wished he'd called the cops. Courtney had nearly clubbed him to death with a ringette stick. They'd thrown his body in the dumpster out back and called 911 anonymously. There had been an inquiry by the cops, but no one fessed up about it. No one ever wanted to get involved.

Well Courtney did. And as she stepped out of the elevator, her chain mail buckled and fastened on, she began jogging down the street towards Andrew's coffee shop, samurai sword in hand.

* * * * * *

There was snow falling down from a black sky, white motes in the darkness, and it made him think of all the talk Charles did about chaos and order...the white was the order, but it seemed so insignificant against the darkness it seemed to be running away from. His ears had registered sound, but it took tearing his gaze away from the hypnotic descent of the snowflakes to give the sounds context.

Even once he had looked, none of it made any sense.

Someone was sitting in front of him, slumped over the wheel of a car; there was blood on the steering wheel. He wondered why anyone would choose to drive a convertible in the dead of winter, but then he saw the sundered metal frame that had once held the car's roof and understood.

There was a girl looking in horror at the person slumped over the steering wheel. Both seemed familiar, but he could see the girl's face...she was the new girl he had seemed an age ago. She was screaming, and shaking the unconscious man's shoulder...or was he dead?

The car itself had somehow backed into his coffee shop; the window it had gone through was completely disintegrated. Andrew looked down impassively at the glass fragments and shards which had fallen thick as the snow in the back seat of the car. He was suddenly aware of his nakedness, and glad he had the blanket between himself and the glass.

Over the girl's shoulder he could see something approaching from the street, seeming to float down from the sky, a great shadow silhouetted against the street lights and the glare of the snow. It looked to be a giant bird, but he could see a face on it...and that face he recognized all too well.

"She's coming," he said, a bare whisper. His throat felt dry and swollen. The girl in the front seat didn't seem to hear him. "She's coming," he repeated louder, this time a croak.

The girl heard him and turned to look, first at him, then when he nodded in the direction of the thing approaching them, turning to the street. But it was already too late. The giant owl-thing had launched itself, talons outstretched.

* * * * * *

Courtney had seen the front end of the car sticking out of the shop, the roof torn off, and Blackout slumped across the wheel as she approached, picking up her pace from a jog to a full run, her cleats digging into the hardpack snow and giving her extra traction. She could see Andrew, the guy from the coffee shop sitting in the back seat, wrapped in a blanket, looking out into the street. She turned her head to see what he was looking at, and nearly fell down.

A huge bird-like apparition was lighting down on the street in front of the ruined shop, and it didn't take a Dungeon Master to tell her this wasn't a wandering monster. This was an enemy, and it was getting ready to attack. She put on a burst of speed, her powerful leg muscles pushing her faster and faster.

She bolted across the crosswalk, sprinting full out as the owl thing jumped into the air for its attack. Courtney's leg stretched out, touched the hood, and she sprung into the air, katana swung back.

This is where all those kendo lessons pay off, was the last coherent thought she had before she connected in a full on shoulder check with the monstrosity.

* * * * *

Andrew saw the girl in chainmail crash into the monster, throwing it to the ground in front of the copy shop. He was about to ask the girl in the car...Lara?...what the hell was going on, when a steel grip closed about his wrist and yanked him clean out of the backseat.

He was pulled face to face with his own face. His arm felt like it had been torn out of the socket; the super-him was holding him off the ground by the wrist, letting him dangle there, the blanket fallen to the ground.

"I told her we should have just killed you," he told himself. This was by far worse than the inner dialogue he was always engaged in. "Time to remedy that mistake," his bigger self said, and drew back his free arm to strike.

Andrew could see that the free arm was holding one of the tables in it.

"This is going to hurt," his steroid-monkey self said. "A great deal."

* * * * *

Ripper had jumped out of his seat when he'd heard the car crash into the coffee shop. He ran out of his apartment at the back of the comic shop and raced to the window to look down into the street. From his vantage point, he could only see the black lines the wheels had left in the snow on the street, and the front end of the car. But that was enough. He knew that hood all too well. It was Blackout's car.

Then his phone rang, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He looked at his call display. It was--Courtney?

"The world is ending," he said, and thumbed the talk button.

"Are-you-at-your-shop?" Courtney asked, breathing heavy between every word.

"Yes!" Ripper replied. "Blackout's car just got in an accident!"

"Listen, Blackout phoned me and told me to bring my LARP gear to the shop! He said it was an emergency!"

"Our LARP gear?" Ripper stole a glance at the claymore he had on the wall behind the counter, beneath the sign that said, We don't mind if you shop-lift, so long as you don't mind if we get medieval on your ass.

"What does he need our LARP gear for? Courtney, I think he might be seriously hurt!"

"That's just what he told me! I'm almost there, I gotta go," and she hung up.

Ripper stood there in the darkness of the shop, uncertain of how to proceed. His brain registered the need for decisive action; his friend could be close to death in the wreckage of that car. He ran to his computer, and typed quickly to Mikey, then grabbed the claymore from above the counter and ran down the stairs.

* * * * *

Mikey stared at the screen, not sure if Ripper had made a typo.

Call Sunny. Tell her to bring doctor kit. Blackout in car accident at coffee shop. Come if you can. Bring LARP gear.

Why wouldn't he just tell Mikey to phone 911? Why wouldn't he phone 911 himself? And why the hell would he bring his LARP stuff to a car accident? This had to be a joke...and yet, something told wasn't. Ripper joked about a lot of things, but his best friend needing medical attention...wasn't one of them. Maybe Blackout was high...he did DJ at those raves. Maybe he'd been driving under the influence, and they didn't want the cops to find out. That felt pretty gangster, which appealed to Mikey. Anything off the beaten path appealed to Mikey. His parents were dyed in the wool Baptists, and if they knew that he played D&D, if they knew he did freestyle rap and hip hop at nightclubs, that he knew how to break into cars, even though he had no intention of stealing one...if they knew he owned a pilum, a Roman short sword and a real skeleton key...they'd freak.

Rescuing a friend strung out on drugs by keeping the authorities out of the loop. That had to be it. Whatever. Even if it wasn't, it would be one more secret that his parents would shit the ten commandments over. He flipped open his cell phone and dialed Sunny's number.

* * * * * *

Ripper went down into a crouch when he saw the bird-thing land just in front of the shop. He felt his crotch go warm and then suddenly very cold as his pants nearly froze to his leg. How uncool was that? He just pissed himself. Still, he had pissed himself over seeing a half-woman half-owl the size of a cube van land in front of his comic shop and he hadn't been high.

I think that earns the right to pee down one's leg, he thought to himself.

He glanced over at the wreckage of Blackout's car. The barista babe Lara was shaking Blackout...who was slumped over the steering wheel, blood running down the side of his head. He forgot his fear and ran crouched down to the side of the car, throwing himself down against the door as the owl-thing screamed loudly and launched itself at the wreckage. He braced himself for an impact that never came. The monster's trajectory changed suddenly as it was forced sideways, over Ripper's head and then crashing into the pavement.

He saw Courtney roll clear of the monster, her katana flashing in hand, and suddenly remembered his own sword. He stood to go and help her, when he heard a startled yelp and turned just in time to see a gigantic version of Andrew Weazle grabbing an emaciated version of Andrew Weazle from the back of the car wreck.

"This is so fucked up," he said under his breath.

But he'd gamed enough to know that when a really large anything grabs its own twin from the back seat of a car filled with friendlies, it means that the really large something is not a friendly. This hypothesis was given further gravity by the realization that the giant Andrew was about to hit the World Vision poster child Andrew with a table.

He raised the claymore, and ran into the coffee shop screaming.

* * * * *

Andrew heard the screaming and then saw a flash of metal and heard a sound much like an axe chopping wood. His double let go of him, and Andrew crashed to the ground in a pile of flesh and bone. The pain in his shoulder was immense. Turning his head, he could see Mark Ripper standing with a huge sword embedded in his double's left forearm. Ripper was trying to pull the sword loose, but his swing had connected hard enough to sink into the bone, and the blade was stuck. His double took his right hand and swatted Ripper, launching him off the ground and landing on the trunk of Blackout's car. The giant then turned his attention to the sword, which he pried loose with one titanic tug. The blade was slimy with something that looked like raw sewage instead of blood. A smell like a chemical toilet at a weekend-long rock festival hit Andrew's nostrils and he gagged.

The giant turned his attention to Andrew again. And now he had a sword.

Andrew scrambled to his feet and lurched towards the back room. He reached the door just in time, slamming it shut behind him. He flipped the deadbolt and slumped to the floor.

The door shook on its hinges as the giant pounded into it. The deadbolt wouldn't make any difference if the frame couldn't hold. He pulled himself to his feet with an effort and looked around the room for something to protect himself with. The open door to the bathroom beckoned. If nothing else, it was another door between him and the giant.

* * * * *

Courtney went down hard under the weight of the succubus, and they wrestled, a blur of steel and claws. She felt one of the talons rake across her ribcage and she screamed as the pain lanced up her side. She wanted badly to say she'd had worse, but the truth was, she hadn't. The fight between them had been worse than any scrum she'd ever been in. Worse than any pain she'd ever felt. She tried to get up, but the wound was too much. She couldn't raise the katana to strike back.

At least I didn't turn a blind eye or deaf ear, she thought to herself.

The succubus leered at her. "Silly girl," it said in its mockery of the human voice. "Charging into the fray without knowing what you faced. I have lived for thousands of years, and drained as many great heroes of their strength. You have the spirit, but not the skill to defeat me. I admire your spirit, and I look forward to taking it--"

The succubus stopped in mid sentence with a choking sound, and jerked to the side, as though it had been pulled by an unseen hand. It looked surprised, and turned its head to see what had happened.

Which was when Lara smacked the look of surprise clean off its face with the reclaimed half-shovel.

* * * * *

The Nephilim kicked hard at the door to the staff room, and it exploded off its frame, crashing into the empty room beyond. It strode into the staff room, searching for Andrew. The light from under the door to the bathroom beckoned.

"Trapped," it said. It twirled the claymore in its hand, accessing one of Andrew's memories of fantasy films. "It's over little brother," it said. "Time to die."

The door to the bathroom was flung open and Andrew stood, still naked, coated in some sort of viscous goo.

"Here's a little trick I learned at summer camp," Andrew said, and launched himself in a dive across the floor. Coated in hand soap, he slid across the floor with ease, through the Nephilim's legs, and out the staff room entrance.

The Nephilim roared and whirled to pursue, slipping on the trail of soap as he did so, falling to the floor with a crash. Andrew was trying to pull himself up to a standing position, a difficult feat given his slick epidermis. He had righted himself at the same time as the Nephilim, and did a sideways slide away from the giant as it crashed headfirst into the coffee bar.

* * * * *

Ripper bolted upright, and looked around.

"Not a dream. Damn." He surveyed the action, seeing what he had missed while unconscious. The giant was nowhere to be seen, and the skinny Andrew was clutching the side of the coffee bar as though he were having trouble getting his legs to work for him. He turned and saw Courtney and Lara repeatedly striking the owl-thing over and over, although it was painfully obvious that the creature was deader than Napoleon.


He jumped off the trunk and, ignoring the pain in his tailbone and lower back, hobbled to the driver's side of the car. He put a hand on Blackout's shoulder and leaned close.

"Blackout?" he said. He heard a crash and turned to see the giant rising from behind the coffee bar. Andrew was avoiding his super-sized twin by sliding about in a slapstick comedy routine that would have made any Loony Toons character proud. But it was as obvious as the bird was dead that Andrew was slowly being backed into a corner, and his movements were becoming more and more desperate.

"Blackout?" Ripper repeated.

Blackout groaned. "Oh thank God. Can you hear me?"

"Just don't play Chemical Brothers and Moby. It's too mainstream," Blackout mumbled.

"Great," Ripper grimaced. He stood and called to the women. "HEY! Xena and Buffy! I could use a hand here!"

The women stopped their butchering of the gigantic fowl and turned to look at him. Their hair was disheveled, and blood splattered them from head to toe.

"Blackout's okay--I think! But he isn't making much sense...and we need to tend to this other problem here. The giant Andrew one!"

"It's not a giant!" Lara shouted. "It's a golem!"

"Oh!" said Ripper in a bemused tone. "Why didn't you just say so?"

* * * * *

Andrew dodged, but he could feel the last of whatever strength the Tree's mead had granted him leaving him rapidly. It was only a matter of time before the giant had him. And if it got a decent grip on him, it would be over.

He slid once more, and his foot slipped as he did. He fell to the ground, and in that instant the giant was upon him, scooping him up in his arms and crushing him to his chest. Andrew felt the air go out of his lungs, and flailed in vain against the Nephilim's grip.

"Goodbye little brother," the giant said, and hugged Andrew even tighter. "One last hug between family."

"Truth," said a voice, and the Nephilim turned, relaxing its grip on Andrew slightly. "What is truth? That's the age old question, isn't it? Or in your case, the week old forehead tattoo."

Ripper stood, a bottle of spray cleaner in one hand. He raised it like a gun, and clicked the nozzle to 'stream'. He sprayed it hard onto the Nephilim's face, peeling back the makeup from it's forehead.

"Stupid mortal," the Nephilim said, shaking the soapy solution from its eyes. "Soap won't take off the magic word." He threw Andrew to the side and advanced towards Ripper.

"No, but this will," called Lara from high up in the tree, where she kicked the espresso machine loose.

The Nephilim looked up just in time for the metal letters "Saeco" to replace the Hebrew word for 'truth' carved into his forehead.

Outside, the snow continued to fall.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Episode 26: At the Top of the Tree

What has gone before: Coffee shop owner Andrew Weazle spills coffee made with magic beans into a planter containing a dead bonsai tree, causing a massive ash tree to grow in its place overnight. Following a miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. The succubus creates a doppelganger of Andrew, and the pair of them plot something dire for the magic Tree. Andrew's friends Lara and Blackout rescue him from near death, only to find themselves pursued by the succubus. Meanwhile, Andrew's spirit travels the Tree...

"...the role of guardian is an office, like any other office. You aren't better than the people around you because you were chosen to guard an avatar of the Tree," John said, pipe stem clamped between his teeth. He tried drawing smoke from the pipe and realized it had gone out. Taking the pipe from his mouth he turned it upside down and patted the bowl with the palm of his hand, spilling tobacco out onto the ground, which Andrew realized, was actually tree bark.

"What John's trying to say is that if you get out of this fine mess you've landed yourself in," Jack said, handing Andrew a mug of beer, "is that taking care of the tree is important work, but its best done with the rest of the world in mind. You can't go thinking the world owes you a favor because of what you'll give up, or undertake, or even now, suffer because of the Tree. The work of the guardian is cosmic butler. You are the door-warden to the Tree, not its bloody gardener."

"Which is why its brilliant that you're a...what did you call it again?" Charles said, sipping his own beer.

"A barista. It's just a fancy term for coffee maker," Andrew said.

"But its a service oriented job," Charles said. "And even the smallest act of service echoes the greatest sacrifice. Making a cup of coffee for a customer is the first step on the journey that could lead you to giving your life for someone else."

"Not necessarily a journey anyone wants to take, C.W." said Jack.

The golden light which suffused their surroundings at the top of the tree seem to flicker for a moment, as if a shadow had passed across the unseen sun. The four of them stopped talking and looked around.

"What the hell was that?" Jack asked.

A distant rumble, followed by another flicker, and a marked dimming of the light.

"Not good," John said, putting his pipe away and getting to his feet. "We'd best be on our way. I think we've told you a good lot you can put to work," he said to Andrew.

"Where are you going?" Andrew asked.

"The last time I saw this happen was in 1945," John said. An avatar of the Tree was destroyed in Nagasaki, and those of us who traveled it in those days witnessed a dimming of that golden light. It means an avatar of the Tree is on the verge of being destroyed."

"My Tree?" Andrew asked.

"Impossible to say," John replied. "There are many worlds connected to the Tree, as many as there are branches," he said, gesturing to the massive green expanse beneath them. "But we know yours was likely to be in such danger."

Jack and Charles stood, placing their beer mugs down on the table. "He really ought to stick to tea and coffee," Jack said, waving at Ratty, who was wiping down the coffee bar.

"Well, I give him points for good effort," Charles said.

"Thank you," Andrew said abruptly. "Thank you for helping me."

"We'll see you again," Jack said, smiling his expansive smile. "If you make it out of this mess alive, we'll send someone to teach you how to travel the Tree."

"How will I know you've sent them?"

"Look for the red outfit," Jack replied, and walked to the edge of the cafe's great platform. A bus, hovering in the air, was waiting for them. "Cheers, Andrew."

"Cheers," he said, and watched as the three men boarded the bus, and flew away.

Andrew sat there, looking at the green expanse of the Tree. He wondered what was happening to his body, and felt a twinge of guilt for how badly he had messed things up. He took another sip of the beer, which tasted strange to him. More like a spiced wine...or champagne even.

"How you like?" Ratty asked, clearing the other mugs off the table.

"It's an odd taste for a beer," Andrew said.

"Not beer!" Ratty said, shaking his head, and bristling his tail. "Mead. Made from sap of the Tree."

"Of course," Andrew smiled. "Just like everything else here." He took another drink.

"Make you feel better quick," Ratty said. "Tree sap heal quick quick, quick sticks!" The squirrel pondered the half-drank mugs. "They no like?"

"I don't think they knew what they were drinking," Andrew said, and tilted his head back, drinking the sweet, thick mead down in thirsty gulps. A delicious warmth flooded through him. Through my body? he thought, and then laughed. His body wasn't couldn't be. It was back in the real world...

And then the vision of gold and green, of Ratty and the cafe was torn away again, and he took a lungful of bitter cold air. He blinked, and looked around. Once again, he found himself wishing he hadn't come back.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Episode 25: The gratuitous car chase...sort of.

What has gone before: Coffee shop owner Andrew Weazle spills coffee made with magic beans into a planter containing a dead bonsai tree, causing a massive ash tree to grow in its place overnight. Following a miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. The succubus creates a doppelganger of Andrew, and the pair of them plot something dire for the magic Tree. Andrew's friends Lara and Blackout rescue him from near death, only to find themselves pursued by the succubus...

"I can't see her!" Lara screamed, leaning out of the car window as far as her seatbelt would allow.

"Get your head back in here!" Blackout shouted over the scream of the small car's engine redlining. "Remember what she did to your leg?"

Lara pulled her head back in from the freezing air and looked back at Andrew's unconscious form, strapped into the back seat and covered in heavy blankets.

"He looks dead!" Lara shouted.

"I'm not as worried about him right now!" Blackout replied, swerving madly, racing for the entrance to the high level bridge. If he could make it in there, they might have a chance of reaching the shop before the succubus descended on them again. The bridge's heavy steel framework would provide cover, and Blackout doubted the bitch could spread her wings in the enclosed space. He didn't think the car could withstand another assault.

When Lara had spotted Julie over Blackout's shoulder, the demon had still been at the far end of the hall. They'd both ducked into the apartment's back stairwell, and Lara had rammed a fire-extinguisher into the crash bar, preventing Julie from following them. They'd raced down the stairs, both of them uttering prayers mixed with expletives, profanity and petitions blurring into what Blackout could only hope God would construe as sincere pleas for divine assistance.

They'd reached the ground floor to find it empty save for other tenants, who gave them hardly a passing glance as they rushed out of the building. Blackout recognized the averted gazes; don't look and you don't have to get involved. At least one of them had held the door open.

They'd made it to the car before Julie had descended upon them. Lara saw her first once again, as Blackout was occupied trying to strap Andrew in. She'd shoved Blackout into the car, sending him sprawling across Andrew, while she dropped to the ground. There was a terrible deafening screech as sharp claws raked across the roof of the car.

"We need to get going!" Lara had screamed, jumping up from the pavement. Blackout extricated himself from the backseat and looked up into the night sky to see a huge, winged shape soaring upwards before banking and turning back towards them. He'd frozen in place, terror stealing his ability to move.

Julie had transformed into something that appeared to be a mix of an owl, with massive wings and outstretched talons, but retained the face and torso of a dark haired woman with a terrible look of rage on her face, fangs trailing spit in her fury. She was headed straight for him, and he understood that those claws would tear him half. And still he was unable to move.

And just as he thought his life had come to its end, there was a metallic ringing noise, a flurry of feathers and an unholy, inhuman shriek. The violence of the moment threw Blackout to the pavement, and he saw the Julie-thing crash overhead and into a parked car, the glass from the windows blowing out beneath the monster's weight.

Lara was standing over him, legs braced, clenched teeth bared, breathing heavily from the adrenaline rush. In her hands she held the snapped haft of the blessed shovel.

"I think the rest of it's in that bitch," Lara said, answering Blackout's unspoken question. "No time to check though!" She dropped the useless wood and ran around to the passenger side.

Blackout pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the pain in his shoulders and tail bone and got into the car, firing the ignition as he watched the wounded Julie-thing try to right itself from the wreckage of the car. He could see the snapped haft of the shovel buried in its torso.

"Yeah," he said, as the car lurched away from the curb. "She's still got your shovel."

Now, as they roared into the entrance to the high level bridge, driving faster than he ever had in his life, Blackout had a wild moment of elation; they were fighting the powers of darkness, and like every story or movie he'd ever seen, it looked as though they'd actually make it. They'd get Andrew to the Tree and he'd be healed and everything would be all right. They were only minutes from the shop now.

And then he saw Julie, flying parallel to them as they raced across the bridge, keeping speed with them despite the wound the shovel had inflicted. She was smiling at him, as though she knew what he was thinking, and was letting him know that things didn't work out that good in real life. In life, the bad guys won, all the time. Darfur, Rwanda, Sierra Leone...we've been to all those places, and we feasted on the bloodbaths there. What makes you think you're special?

"Because I'm a Dungeon Master, bitch," Blackout said through gritted teeth and leaned forward over the steering wheel.

"What did you say?" Lara shouted.

Blackout didn't reply, but instead dug his cell phone out and handed it to Lara. "Speed dial #2!" he yelled. "And put it on speaker!"

* * * * *

Ripper's cell phone began playing the theme to Star Wars; it was the ringtone he'd set for his friends from the gaming group. He knew it couldn't be Geo, as the man had a real job and would never be up past midnight on a weeknight. It couldn't be Mikey, since he was currently playing WOW with Ripper, and was actively engaged in a conversation with someone else in their party. It was unlikely to be Courtney, since she hated Ripper's guts, which left Blackout or Sunny. If Sunny was phoning at this hour, it was because she was hoping to take advantage of their Friends With Benefits arrangement. He grabbed the phone and was disappointed to see Blackout's number on call display.

"Not tonight buddy," he said, and shut the ringer off.

* * * * *

"No answer!" Lara shouted as they roared out of the corridor of the High Level bridge and up the hill towards the University campus. "Oh shit!"

Blackout caught a glimpse in his peripheral vision of Julie coming up broadside, and then the car lurched as her talons dug into the car and lifted it off the ground. Blackout had brief visions of the monster dragging them up into the sky and then out over the North Saskatchewan river before dropping them to an icy death by drowning.

But cars were not meant to fly, and vehicle roofs are not built to hold the weight of a car suspended in mid air. The roof tore loose, weakened already by Julie's first attack, and the vehicle slammed back into the road, bouncing as it struck. Blackout felt something give in his wrist as he tried to steer. Bright, lancing pain shot up his right arm and he let go of the steering wheel. The car swerved erratically, driving up onto the sidewalk before Lara leaned over and grabbed the wheel, turning them back onto the street.

Blackout grabbed the wheel with his left hand. "Got it!" he shouted. "Where is she now?"

"Six o'clock!" Lara yelled. "Shit shit shit!"

There was a crashing noise as the Julie-thing dropped the roof of the car, trying to bomb them with it. It struck the back of the car, denting in the trunk, and bouncing harmlessly off behind them.

Blackout turned the wheel, spinning the car hard to the right and racing down the street that lead to the shop. "Almost there!" he shouted. "Try the phone again! Speed dial #3!"

* * * * *

Courtney was up late studying for mid-terms when her phone rang. She furrowed her brow, wondering who could possibly be phoning at this hour. The call display said it was Blackout. She thumbed the talk button, and put the phone to her ear.

"Mark?" she said.

"CORT!" Blackout's voice, distorted, and difficult to hear with all the background noise. "I need you to come to the coffee shop NOW! Call Ripper and anyone else you can and tell them to bring their LARP shit! It's an emergency!"

There was a terrible screeching noise, and then the line went dead. Courtney sat there, dumbstruck for a moment, then calmly put down the phone and went to her closet, opening the door. She pushed aside clothes to take out a very heavy garment bag. As she undid the zipper, silver links of chain glinted in the light of her desklamp.

* * * * *

"What about the Nephilim?" Blackout shouted as they rocketed down the street, the coffee shop now in view.

Lara was holding her left arm against her body. Her arm was bleeding from where Julie's talons had grazed her while she was holding out Blackout's phone, now lying on the street somewhere behind them.

"Crash through the window!" Lara yelled back.

"Are you nuts?" Blackout screamed.

"We're being chased by a huge owl monster!" Lara shouted. "It tore the roof off your fucking car! We are going to DIE if you don't get us close enough to the Tree!"

And then they were skidding sideways on the icy road, their screams blending into a chorus as the car jumped the curb, spinning 180 degrees before slamming through the front of the coffee shop.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Episode 24: The Nephilim

Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. Lara and Blackout rescue Andrew, but Lara soon discovers that what they thought was Andrew is a clever doppelganger in league with the succubus. The real Andrew has been in a state of coma, dreaming in the branches of the Tree...

Blackout had expected the emotion he felt upon finding Andrew would be elation. Instead, he found himself shifting between pity, helplessness, and a mounting horror. His friend was emaciated; a living skeleton. His eyes had fluttered open for a moment when Lara had bravely administered CPR, but they'd quickly closed and he'd curled into a fetal position. He reminded Blackout of pictures he'd seen of the guy they dug out of the bog in Europe.

"We need to get him to the Tree," Lara said sharply, pulling Blackout of his stupor.

"If he lives that long," Blackout said under his breath, and ran to the bedroom to tear sheets off the bed. It was clear that Andrew's doppelganger didn't sleep. What did he need sleep for though, when he could drain the vitality of those around him? First Andrew, and then the Tree.

"It is a very dark and secret line of midrashic legend surrounding the tales of the Nephilim," said Cooper, after Blackout and Lara had sat back down in his office, the door safely shut behind them. "The Lilitu are said to have been the demon spawn of Lilith...the first wife of Adam."

"I thought Adam's wife was named Eve."

"In Jewish Legend, Eve is Adam's second wife. The first was made from the same clay as Adam, and refused to give him children. There are also legends that say she was not created at all, but was rather part of the Chaos that existed before God created the heavens and the earth. Whatever her origin, she is said to be the mother of the lilitu...and the consort of Samael, a fallen angel. Their children are said to have had sexual intercourse with humans, prior to the was one of the acts which enraged God enough to destroy the world in a deluge. These children were called the Nephilim, which means 'those who cause others to fall.' To fall in fear and terror at the sight of them.

"So what does any of this have to do with Andrew's double?" Lara asked.

"Human females who produced Nephilim did so through normal childbirth, which purportedly always ended in their death. The demon females who took the seed of human males used it to craft a special type of that would resemble the 'sperm donor' in every way possible...even memories. As a result, these golem were not stupid, shambling clay hulks, but terrible mockeries of their twin. They would replace that person in society, given that they derived their power from consuming the original."

"Consuming? As in
eating them?" Lara had asked, her face white as a sheet.

"That is how many have interpreted the passages in the book of Enoch about the Nephilim, but the word used there is
akal, which is used both for eating, as well as fire devouring its fuel. There is a little known midrash which supposes that akal, used in reference to the Nephilim, referred to their ability to drain the strength of others."

Blackout and Lara sat, gaping.

"When you say it could drain others, what would happen to this
strength?" Blackout stammered.

"It would add to their own. It is why the Nephilim are reputed to be the heroes of old. As they drained others' strength, they grew in might and power."

"Could they drain other things than humans?" Lara asked.

"They were said to be a blight upon the land. I would guess that they were able to take power from the earth itself...plant, animal...whatever had
ruach, or life within it."

There had been an uncomfortable silence, and then Dr. Cooper had risen and opened a glass display case at the top of a bookshelf. He withdrew a beautiful, golden piece of jewelry.

"This is an amulet, inscribed with the names of three angels... Jewish parents who believe in the lilitu placed them around the necks of newborn boys in order to protect them from the demons until they were circumcised."
"The lilitu can't attack men who are circumcised?" Blackout asked, his face brightening up. "That is correct," said Dr. Cooper.

"Score!" Blackout had shouted, standing up and raising his arms in the air before realizing what he was doing. Lara was looking at the floor and stifling a nervous laugh.

Dr. Cooper handed the amulet to Lara. "Obviously, your friend here doesn't need this. But you might."
Lara looked up into Dr. Cooper's face, trying to form words to explain everything. "I don't know what's going on, and I'm not really sure I want to," he said. "But neither of you asked the sort of questions students writing papers do. You both sounded like you were looking for a survival manual. I don't have anything like that, but I do have this amulet. Just bring it back when you're done with it. It's been in my family for a very, very long time." He had stopped them once again at the door. "I should add that the amulet will do nothing to protect you from the Nephilim."

Blackout shuddered. He had seen the Ur-Andrew when he and Lara had dropped by the shop, under the pretense that Lara had lost her i-pod and thought she might have left it in the staff room. Real Andrew had a slim build; big enough shoulders, but not much meat on the bones. The Nephilim looked like Andrew on steroids. Every move he made strained the shirt he was wearing, and it appeared that he'd gained an inch or two in height. He certainly wasn't fooling anyone with his 'recovering sick guy' act anymore. He had noticed Blackout staring at him, and raised an eyebrow.

"Something bothering you Mark?" the faux Andrew had asked, a hint of menace in his voice.

"I was just, uh, looks like you've been hitting the gym," Blackout said.

"Yeah," Not-Andrew said, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I figured it would help me recover from...everything that happened."

"Sure," Blackout replied. "Looking good buddy, looking good."

But Blackout was certain the Nephilim hadn't bought it. The way he'd looked at Lara when she'd emerged from the back room, his eyes cold and staring, Blackout was pretty sure he knew they were onto him. At least that they figured something was up.

"Was Julie there?" Blackout asked.

Lara nodded. "She was sitting in the back room, looking through this really old book. Had all sorts of calligraphy or hieroglyphics or some shit. Diagrams with inverted pentagrams, the classic Satanist shit. Like it was the fucking Necronomicon or something." She was wide eyed, and shaking a bit. "I told her I was looking for my I-pod, and she said she hadn't seen it, and I pretended to look around a bit. She didn't even close the book. Like she could have cared less that I saw her reading it."

"Andrew...I mean...the Nephilim was pretty bold too. It's like they know we're onto them."

"Yeah, that's what I thought too," Lara said, "But they don't care, because they're close to doing whatever it is they're going to do..."

"And they think we can't stop them," Blackout finished.

"What do we do now?" Lara said.

"We need to go and find the real Andrew," Blackout said.

"You think he's still alive?"

"I don't know," Blackout replied, heading towards the downtown. "But if he
is and we don't search every inch of that apartment for him...I don't think he'll be of much use to them once they've done whatever it is they're going to do."

Breaking into Andrew's apartment was getting to be old hat. They'd smashed the lock and entered without much effort, then quickly turned the apartment upside down; Andrew was in the apartment's tiny storage room on a sleeping bag, naked. His breathing was shallow when they entered the room, his body convulsing in little twitches. Then suddenly, without warning, he had gasped, and stopped breathing entirely. Lara had acted quickly, administering CPR as gently as she could, given Andrew's emaciated, palsied state. He'd started breathing again, his eyes had flickered open, and he whispered, "It was so much brighter over there..." before lapsing back into unconsciousness.

All the events of the day were rushing through Blackout's mind as he carried Andrew's frail body, wrapped in a blankets, towards the back stairs of the apartment. Lara was holding the door open for him, looking over his shoulder, when her eyes went wide and she screamed at Blackout, "RUN!"

Friday, October 19, 2007

Episode 23 : Without an Inkling

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. Lara and Blackout rescue Andrew, but Lara soon discovers that what they thought was Andrew is a clever doppelganger in league with the succubus. The real Andrew is still missing...

Andrew couldn't recall how long he'd been sitting at the cafe at the top of the Tree. In fact, he had difficulty remembering much of anything. What filled his thoughts most, was that the squirrel who was working as the barista here made the best coffee he had ever tasted.

"Is it the beans?" he asked when the squirrel offered him a second cup. "Something like the Kpoi Luwak?"

"No shit coffee!" the squirrel replied emphatically. "Just beans from the Tree!" The squirrel talked like one imagined a squirrel would, like a verbal chain gun, spitting out syllables with a rapidity that only sustained proximity to caffeinated drinks made possible.

He'd wondered at that. "I don't know much about botany, but I'm pretty sure Ash trees don't produce coffee beans--or any kind of consumable product for that matter. Hell, I doubt you could make tea out of the leaves."

"Not Ash Tree!" the squirrel said. "Aaaaaaaxis Muuuuundiiiii!"

He knew the term. They'd discussed it in one of his religious studies classes. In organizing sacred space, or cosmology, almost all cultures featured a central pillar, tree, mountain, ziggurat, temple or city around which the rest of the universe was organized. The scholarly term Mircea Eliade had popularized for this ritualization of space was the axis mundi. He could buy that the Tree he was currently sitting at the top of was an axis mundi, but how was that connected to the tree in the coffee shop? Why was he even thinking about the two trees in the same thought? The tree in the shop was a regular sized tree, however fast it had grown to maturity. The Tree he was sitting at the top of was massive enough to be seen from space.

"Mind if we sit down?" said a deep, resonant voice.

Andrew realized he'd heard the sound of a bus driving up and stopping, the door opening and closing, but had ignored it because he was so entranced by the vision of the Tree, and musing about the axis mundi. He turned around to see three men standing on the wooden patio deck of the cafe. The one in the middle was clearly the speaker, as he had a look of expectancy on his face.

Andrew motioned with his hand to the empty seats around his table, and the three men sat down. The squirrel darted from behind the coffee bar with three cups of tea on a tray.

"Axis Mundi Tea," the squirrel said to Andrew with a wink, and darted away again.

"Not quite the Bird and the Baby," the deep voiced man said to his companions, but loud enough to include Andrew, "but it has a hell of a view, and Ratty's a good enough fellow." He smiled and produced a cigarette from his jacket and lit it, before extending a hand across the table. "I'm Jack."

Andrew took the hand and shook it. "Andrew."

The others introduced themselves with handshakes as well. John, seated to Jack's left, was a long faced man with a Roman nose, his hair combed very neatly. Unlike Jack, whose shirt open at the collar in an unkempt fashion, John had his tie knotted in a very proper Windsor. He produced a pipe and packed tobacco into it while Andrew made his greeting to Charles, a rather homely fellow on Jack's right who wore thick spectacles and had a glum look about him.

"Makes a splendid tea," said John, lighting his pipe and puffing it into life.

"Still not a replacement for a pint Tollers," Jack said in reply. "At least its not the vile stuff our lad is drinking."

"I've grown rather fond of it myself," Charles said. "Especially when there's a cool breeze flowing out of the West."

"Bitter tastes for bitter temperaments," Jack laughed, and Andrew laughed with him, despite his utter lack of knowledge about what was so funny.

The three men talked about a number of things, and argued about as many. Jack effortlessly drew Andrew into their circle, and while he felt entirely out of his depth, found himself animatedly bantering with them from time to time, especially on matters of literature. He kept trying to guess their ages, but the concept kept eluding him, as though age were not something to be considered above the verdant expanse of this massive Tree, with a sun more golden than any he'd ever seen before shining down on them.

"We'd best get to business," John said at length. "We didn't come here for chit-chat, pleasant as it has been."

"Right you are," Jack said. "I'd say your the best man for the job here Tollers."

"Why me?" John asked. "We all played our parts when the Tree was ours to protect."

"Yours," Jack said. "We all signed on to help, but the responsibility was always yours alone. C.W. didn't even come along until after you were given the job."

"I don't understand," Andrew said. "Do you mean this Tree?" he asked, pointing down to the green sea, undulating in a light warm breeze beneath them.

"Yes," John said. "And no. This Tree cannot be guarded by any one man. But it has...manifestations in the worlds it ties together. And those manifestations can be guarded. I was given guardianship over one such tree...many years ago."

"They took a photograph of him under it," Jack said. "He was much older than he looks right now when they did it...but that was the Tree all the same."

"Christopher's taking care of it these days, isn't he?" Charles asked in a tone that sounded like an attempt at amicability, like he wanted to be more familiar with John than he might be in actuality.

John nodded, and smiled at Charles with a twinge of regret in his face. He turned to Andrew. "Do you know any Norse mythology, young Andrew?"

"I took a class in it," Andrew replied. "Got a little bursary from the 'Sons of Norway' for getting a decent grade."

"Money for beer or books?" Jack asked with a smile.

"Books," Andrew replied.

"Good lad," John said. "You know what Yggdrasil is then, don't you?"

"I do," Andrew said, and then his jaw dropped. He looked down at the massive Tree. "Is this Yggdrasil?"

"Yes...and again, no," John replied. "Yggdrasil is a perception of the Tree, but the Tree is not Yggdrasil. The Tree you've been entrusted with is a part of this Tree, just as the Tree I was entrusted with was as well. But guarding one of these manifestations of the World Tree is too much for any one person to bear. It takes many hands. A community. of companions. I might have to rely on Charles to explain this. He had a theory about it all. Co-dependence, or some such rot."

"Co-inherence," Charles corrected, ignoring John's jibe. "It was an idea that came to me during the Great War. Simply put, it is that all things are connected. Like the worlds are connected through the Tree, so we are connected to one another. We do nothing alone. Our actions impact the world around us."

"Chaos theory," Andrew said.

"Except that it is Chaos that we are holding back," John said. "The Tree, however tangled its growth, is about Order. And those entrusted with the care of the Tree in all its manifestations are charged with the keeping of Order, and the resistance of Chaos."

Andrew sat there, silent, trying to take it all in. "So you're saying I need to recruit some other people to help me take care of the tree in the coffee shop?"

"I can tell just from the way you say 'tree' that you aren't comprehending the scope of your commission," John said.

"Tollers loves trees," Jack said. "Don't get him started. He'll go on for hours about branches and leaves. Wrote a bloody short story about it."

"It's more than that, and you know it Jack." John shot the man a look. "We weren't sent here for tea and coffee. We were sent to help him understand."

"And we've clearly done a brilliant job of confusing him all the more," Jack said.

"What you need to know," said Charles, leaning forward and fixing his intense gaze upon Andrew, "Is that if you attempt to do this alone, you will die. The forces of Chaos have already made an attempt on your life. It will not be the last."

"But your preservation is not our greatest concern," said John. "The work that has been done due to your negligence could very well allow Chaos to gain access to the Tree in a way which could poison it at its very roots...blacken the entire Tree and swallow the universe with it."

Andrew swallowed cold coffee hard. He had enjoyed the earlier conversation a great deal more. Suddenly, he felt a tug, as though someone had pulled his chair from behind.

"Looks like there's still life left in your bones," Jack said. "Still enough of your quickening spirit left to return home it seems. Not ready to board the bus just yet."

Andrew was about to ask Jack what he meant when the golden tableau was yanked out from his vision as though it had been a painted backdrop on a theater stage, and he found coming to in a dark, dank closet. Someone was leaning over him, and he could hear exclamations of excitement, though they made no sense to him.

He was naked, cold and shivering, and fairly sure he was laying in his own filth. He had really enjoyed the earlier conversation much, much more.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Episode 22: How to pronounce Golem

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. Lara and Blackout rescue Andrew, but Lara soon discovers that what they thought was Andrew is a clever doppelganger in league with the succubus.

The pulse of the music, the strobing lights, they all made a mantric bubble for Blackout to shroud himself in. He didn't actually have to even be at the gig, truth be told. He could have walked in, set up a playlist on the laptop and come back in a couple of hours. He knew the security at this club well enough to know they'd watch his stuff. But he needed the tactile feel of vinyl. With records in hand, setting the speeds, getting the mix right, there wasn't any time to think about her. To think about how she hadn't called in days. How he'd sat at Andrew's apartment, making sure he got to the bathroom without passing out, how he'd turned down a gig just to take care of Andrew...and none of it for Andrew. All of it for her.

For Lara.

And no phone call. Once Andrew felt well enough to send him home, there'd been no contact. He'd avoided the coffee shop; he could see where this was all going. She only wanted to be around him when she needed a favor from him.

Well, that was fine, but Blackout wanted to be more than just her errand boy. He knew the drill; he was the dependable guy who had to be there every time the asshole broke her heart. He'd been that enough times. To hell with that. He wouldn't go there again, hope it would grow into something more. He'd keep his distance now. He'd helped her out, and once things had cooled off, he could go by the shop have what he truly believed to be the best coffee experience in the city.

He wondered how much of that had to do with the Tree. And lately, how much of it had to do with her? He couldn't deny that he'd hadn't spent nearly as long at the shop before Andrew had hired Lara.

That was changing. He wasn't going to be the whipped "you're like a brother to me" guy. He had his pride, dammit.

He felt his phone vibrate on his hip, and flipped it open to see that he'd just been sent a text message.

Sorry havnt called. Need your help again.

He flipped open his laptop and clicked on one of his playlists. He waved at one of the security guard and motioned to the door.

In five minutes, he was on his way to the shop.

* * * * * * *

"So what does that mean?" Lara asked Blackout as they ascended the steps of the Old Arts building on the University campus in the early morning. They stopped, standing in front of the imposing wooden entry doors. "That he's got a split personality?"

Blackout stopped and looked at Lara, brow furrowed. Then it dawned on him. "GO-lem," he said, stressing the long vowel. "Not Gollum."

"I thought that didn't seem quite right," Lara said, nodding. "Especially given that comment about how she made him."

"Definitely wins for disgusting origin story," Blackout agreed.

"So why are we here instead of a synagogue?" Lara asked.

"You go to synagogue for Bar Mitzvahs and Hannukah," Blackout replied. "You go to a professor of Jewish folklore if you want to know about a golem."

"You seem to know a fair amount about it yourself," Lara said.

"What, like how to pronounce it?" Blackout grinned. "Everything I know I learned from Dungeons and Dragons. We have no idea if that works in real life."

"It was good enough for the iron shovel idea," Lara said.

"Yeah, but we haven't put that to the test just yet," Blackout replied.

"Emphasis on the yet," Lara said, and Blackout saw a desire in her eyes that made think that in some ways, he would have preferred her coming at him with the shovel to not noticing him.

* * * * * * *

"In Jewish folklore, Adam was the first Golem, until God breathed the divine breath, the ruach into him," the professor said. He was a short, gaunt man with delicate, bird-like features. He lacked the long, wizardly beard Blackout had been imagining. He was obviously glad for the opportunity to talk about his knowledge, that was for certain. Speaking in a hardly audible monologue that nearly faltered into stuttering from time to time, Dr. Cooper expounded on the origins of the golem.

"It's supposedly an automaton made from clay. Ostensibly, the same clay Adam, and by extension the entire human race is made from," Cooper said. "It comes to life through a Hebrew word, inscribed on a piece of paper and placed inside its mouth."

"Or written on its forehead?" Lara cut in.

"Yes!" Cooper said, dancing excitedly at her input. Blackout wondered what it would be like to sit in this guy's classes. "The word is emet, and it ironically means "truth". A false human with the word truth on its forehead. An interesting metaphor for the way some people live their lives."

"How do you destroy a Golem?" Blackout asked.

"Erase the word. Take the paper out of its mouth. That inscription is the source of its power, its life."

"Have you ever heard of any stories where the Golem is an exact copy of a person?" Lara asked. "I mean, with the ability to imitate and replace a human being?"

Dr. Cooper looked perplexed. "Never," he replied. "Golems are characteristically stupid - they can't do anything without a direct command."

They sat a while longer, listening to Cooper complete his mini-lecture on golem, before excusing themselves and making their good-byes. Lara stopped before setting out through the door, and turned to Cooper.

"What about lilitu?" she asked. "Do they ever have anything to do with golem?"

"Oh my," was all he said, and invited them back in.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Episode 21: Why Andrew Stinks

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. Rescued by Lara and Blackout, Andrew returns to work in a weakened state, with the demon still at large...

Lara lay there, holding her breath. Had the tree just talked to her?

She wanted to ask another question, hopefully solicit another response. But before she could open her lips, she heard the sound of the tumblers in the lock of the door to the shop.

Someone is coming.

She rolled over quickly, and spread apart the leaves and branches beneath her enough to see down into the shop. Her high vantage point afforded her a view of the front door, and most of the floor--the coffee bar was out of sight, as was the storage room. In the shadows of the entry way, the door swung open, and two figures stepped inside.

It was Andrew, and the new girl--Julie.

"You really think you're strong enough to do this already?" Julie asked Andrew.

"Absolutely," Andrew replied.

Do what? Lara wondered.

Andrew crossed the room directly beneath Lara's vantage point, and then out of her view. She wanted desperately to get up and climb down the Tree do demand to know what was going on, but fear of being discovered kept her hidden. The the utter lack of expression on Andrew's face had sent a shiver of fear down her spine.

Get a grip! she told herself. It's just Andrew!

But who was Andrew, really? How much did she know about him? She assumed he was a good person, but what if he wasn't? He had obviously lied about several things. He wasn't as sick as he'd let on earlier today - the stood was gone, the circles around the eyes less pronounced--although Lara would have preferred sunken eyes to that soulless gaze. And he obviously knew Julie better than he'd made out as well...but why the act? Did he think Lara would have been upset that he wanted to hire a friend? If that was what Julie was...

This is ridiculous! Just go down and talk to him and find out what's going on! What was the worst that would happen? He'd fire her? There was a boom going on in Alberta - jobs like this were available everywhere! And then she'd be free of this whole of worrying about of taking care of...the Tree.

She couldn't leave the Tree. The Fates said she was one of was her job to safeguard the Tree, to watch over it. The awareness of her charge filled her with resolve, and she tensed to move, to get up, to climb down and demand to know what the hell was going on.

Even as she started to shift her position, her headache came back with a vengeance. The pain shot into her with bright, stabbing pain, and it was all she could do not to cry out. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she bit down on her lip hard enough to draw blood. Visions flickered in her mind as though viewed under a strobe light...she could see Andrew's face...he was reaching down, touching, not her...the Tree. And she could see his lips moving...saying something, chanting, but she couldn't make out the words. Julie, looking over his shoulder, but Julie's face was shifting with each flash of the strobe...

Flash...a demure girl with mouse brown hair dressed in prudish clothing that made her look like she would be voted most-likely-to-become-a-librarian...

Flash...the blonde-tressed porn-star lookalike Andrew had left the coffee shop with...

Flash...a dark form, a feline silhouette with yellow glowing eyes...

The pain was nearly overwhelming her, if only she could reach out to that life-giving sap, drink it in and feel its healing rush through her...and then she felt the connection.

The, the honey...what the Greeks had called meli in ancient times, the soma of the Tree...and something was wrong with wasn't just that Andrew was taking energy from it...he was trying to taint it.

Her fury was instantaneous. Kneeling, prostrate, gripping the sides of the branch, her head placed against the great limb, she raged through her pain, and caught a glimpse of Andrew being thrown back, away from the Tree to crash into the coffee bar. His lower back struck, painfully, and he crumpled to the ground.

The pain stopped abruptly, as did her connection to the Tree. She collapsed, panting.

"Something's opposing me," she heard Andrew say.

"I said you weren't ready," Julie replied. "The Tree is still too strong...and now it knows. Dammit! We should have waited!"

"You were the one who was in such a hurry!" Andrew replied. "If I'd had more time to absorb his aura, perhaps the Tree wouldn't have retaliated!"

His aura? Lara wondered.

"It couldn't know!" Julie shouted. "The spell was perfect! You are perfect! Made from the same clay all humans are! Mixed with the shit and cum of that meat puppet and given life by that inscription on your head!"

What inscription? Lara wondered...she hadn't seen any inscription...

"Keep your voice down!" Andrew said...but was it really Andrew? "What if it hears us?"

"It doesn't speak human," Julie replied. "It can sense them and feel their presence, but it does not speak as they do."

Then who spoke to me?

"We need more power," Julie said. "We need to wait. In three days the Ice Moon will wane, and in the deepest darkness of its passing, our strength will be greatest."

"Saturday then," Andrew said.

"Saturday," Julie replied.

Lara pressed her face to the opening in the foliage just in time to see the pair walk to the door and exit the shop. She waited until she heard the lock click, and then looked at her watch, waiting a full five minutes before rising to a crouch. She monkeyed her way back down the Tree, and hopped down from the branch to the coffee bar, and then down onto the tile floor, cool beneath her bare feet.

She raced through the staff room, and down the stairs into the basement, grabbing the flashlight as she ran down.

We really need to put a bulb in down here, she thought as she flipped the light on and peered through the darkness.

"Ima? Terry? Hatima?" she called.

"We're here child," Terry said, emerging from the shadows.

"Then why the hell didn't you do anything?" she shouted. She was still infuriated by the invasive quality of the Andrew-thing's attempt to taint the Tree. It had felt like rape.

"We only just returned," Ima said. "We were...away."

"Away? Since when do you get vacations?"

"We go out from time to time," Terry said, a mild pique in her voice. "We're the Tree's guardians, not its nursemaids."

"And what was so important that it took precedence over being near the Tree, only a week after what happened to Andrew?"

"Saffire were in Banff," Ima said. "It wasn't but a short distance to go, and it's been a while since we've seen them."

"Saffire...what's that?" Lara said. "Some council, or special order of mystical beings?"

"It's the actual name of the Uppity Blues Women," Terry replied. "We haven't seen them play in a long while."

"Well, the next time you plan on going out to a concert, you let me know!" Lara said through gritted teeth.

"Why are you so upset?" Terry asked. "We sensed the attack and came as quick as we could. We knew you were here and that you would guard the Tree, which you did."

Lara suddenly had a problem remaining quite as upset as she'd been to that moment. "Well...that's not the point."

"Yes it is," Hatima said. Lara's anger subsided against a tide of wild surprise. Hatima had actually spoken. Hatima continued in a thick Jamaican accent. "You're speaking like a child. Which you are not. The Tree has endured in all the worlds through countless ages, and it will endure beyond the plots and plans of the lilitu. That does not mean we should not be vigilant. But vigilance does not mean staring at the Tree all day. It means making provision. We made provision. You are our provision. Our sister. And you were here to do exactly what we would have done."

There was a poignant silence following Hatima's speech.

"I'm done talkin' now," she said.

"There's been enough talk already," Terry said. "We need to act, immediately. We will stay here to guard the Tree Lara. You need to find that young man of yours and seek out a rabbi, as soon as you can."

"A rabbi?" Lara asked. And who did they mean by 'that young man of yours'? Andrew? No...they meant Mark.

"Yes, a rabbi," Ima replied. "I now understand why 'Andrew' had a lingering stench of evil upon him. That thing that appears to be Andrew? It's a golem."